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Published: Thursday June 5, 2014 MYT 9:50:00 PM
Updated: Thursday June 5, 2014 MYT 9:00:05 AM

Sigh: 14,000-year-old cave art in Libya destroyed by vandals

Starting with the first case of vandalism in 2009, the destruction of the ancient cave art at Tadrart Acacus in Libya has become worse since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Just how bad is the damage? In some cases, like the painting above, the destruction is complete.

Starting with the first case of vandalism in 2009, the destruction of the ancient cave art at Tadrart Acacus in Libya has become worse since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Just how bad is the damage? In some cases, like the painting above, the destruction is complete.

Vandals have destroyed prehistoric rock art in lawless southern Libya, endangering a sprawling tableau of paintings and carvings classified by UNESCO as of “outstanding universal value.”

Located along Libya’s southwestern tip bordering Algeria, the Tadrart Acacus mountain massif is famous for thousands of cave paintings and carvings going back up to 14,000 years.

The art, painted or carved on rocks sandwiched by spectacular sand dunes, showcase the changing flora and fauna of the Sahara stretching over thousands of years. Highlights include a huge elephant carved on a rock face as well as giraffes, cows and ostriches rendered in caves dating back to an era when the region was not inhospitable desert.

But on a recent visit to Libya’s remote far south, many of the ancient paintings destroyed or damaged by graffiti sprayers or people carving in their initials.

Heritage loss: The cave art at Tadrart Acacus, estimated to have been painted between 12,000BCE and 100CE, depicted animals no longer seen in the area, leading archaeologists to believe the area wasn't always a desert, and that desertification of the Sahara happened quite recently. Now it shares the space with contributions from vandals who carved names and expletives into the rock or covering them with spray paint as can be seen in these two photos. 

Tourist officials in Ghat, the nearest large town, said the vandalism started in 2009 when a former Libyan employee of a foreign tour company sprayed over several paintings in anger after he had been fired. But the destruction has accelerated since the 2011 civil war that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi and plunged the sprawling North African country into armed anarchy.

With tourist and archaeologists staying away on safety grounds, hunters have taken over the Acacus massif, shooting much of the wildlife across the arid, rugged landscape. Weapons are available anywhere these days in a country where the central government based in Tripoli on the northern Mediterranean coast exerts scant authority and the nascent armed forces are no match for armed tribesmen and militias.

'What the?': Tourists greeted by the heartbreaking sight that now covers the prehistoric paintings and carvings at Tadrart Acacus.

“The destruction is not just affecting the paintings but also the natural reserve. Hunters are to blame,” said Ahmed Sarhan, a tourist ministry official in Ghat. “It’s even a problem in Algeria. Authorities are too weak to stop it,” he said, adding that wildlife such as gazelles and wolves had been almost extinguished by local hunters.

“Acacus contains some of the most extraordinary scenery in the world and has its unique natural wonders,” UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, said on its website. In 1985, UNESCO listed Acacus as a World Heritage site, one of 981 worldwide recognised for their outstanding universal value to humanity.

“Many tourists (once) visited the area, in particular Acacus since it’s one of the best tourist locations in Libya,” said al-Amin al-Ansari, a local tour operator. “The destruction of paintings is regrettable,” he said, standing in front of a cave with desecrated paintings of camels and other animals. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Archaeology, Libya, Tadrart Acacus, cave paintings, ancient art, vandalised, UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourism, anarchy, Sahara

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